We returned home late last night after three weeks away, visiting our daughters and their families in Canada and Florida. We lived out of suitcases, made do with uncomfortable beds, adjusted our daily routines to fit our grandchildren’s and daughters’, suffered through days of extreme heat and high humidity and squeezed our tall bodies into cramped airplane seats. We did it all for love, but last night, as the taxi pulled up to the curb next to our house, we each breathed a sigh of relief, happy to be back in our own beds and awaken to the lovely stillness of early morning. Today—and we’re still not finished—we’re putting our lives back together, unpacking, grocery shopping, doing laundry, rescuing thirsty plants and adjusting to the Pacific time zone. Travel, while pleasant, is also disruptive to one’s life. I admit I felt a wave of gratitude as I sat on the deck and drank my coffee in silence early this morning, glad to be home and resume what I call a “normal life. Without warning, an old Mother Goose nursery rhyme popped into my head:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!
Our lives certainly have not fallen apart like Humpty Dumpty’s, but I thought of friends whose lives, quite recently, have been turned upside down for a time by illness, surgery and waiting for the results of biopsies. Later this morning, as I checked the first week’s assignments from the online “Transformational Writing “ class I teach for UCLA extension, I read several students’ descriptions of events—illness, trauma, loss—that had, quite literally, turned their lives inside out.
Arthur Frank’s At the Will of the Body, written in 1996, remains one my favorite illness memoirs. Frank, who teaches at the University of Calgary, writes eloquently of the way in which illness can disrupt a person’s life. At age 39, he suffered a heart attack and one year later, was diagnosed with and treated for cancer. Frank recounts his experience and reflects on what it means to be ill. The experience of illness, he writes, goes well beyond the limits of medicine, and, as he describes it, reminds us of Humpty Dumpty’s fall:
When the body breaks down, so does the life. Even when medicine can fix the body, that doesn’t always put the life back together again (p. 8).
What happens to one’s body, Frank wrote, happens to one’s life. Life is, as we know, is much more than the physical–heartbeat, circulation, or temperature. It’s made up of hopes and disappointments, joys and sorrows too. Illness or trauma affects every aspect of our lives. What, we ask, is happening to me? How can I put my life together again? We’re assaulted by conflicting, sometimes overwhelming emotions, something Ellen Bass captures in her poem, “The Thing Is:”
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands…
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Frank asks the same question as Bass. How can a person withstand these painful and debilitating events? He distinguishes between disease and illness. “Disease talk” is medical talk, using terms that “reduce the body to physiology…which can be measured.” “Illness talk,” by contrast, is a story about moving from that comfort with our bodies to the disbelief of what is happening to our bodies and our lives. “My questions end up being phrased in disease terms,” he writes, “ but what I really want to know is how to live with illness.”
Living with illness also means we acknowledge that we are changed by it or any other trauma, or suffering. As Frank states, I have learned that the changes that begin during illness do not end when treatment stops. Life after critical illness does not go back to where it was before (p.57).
Life does not got back to where it was before… Putting one’s life together again reminds us that recovery extends well beyond the actual illness as we shift from being “patient” to reclaiming ourselves and our bodies, recognizing, that “the person within the patient” has always existed within us throughout illness and recovery. Illness, Frank suggests, can teach us all “how to live a saner, healthier life…it also witnesses what is worth living (p.15).” How do we put our lives back together again? Again, I turn to Ellen Bass’s poem as she echoes Frank as her poem concludes:
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms…
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
(“The Thing Is,” by Ellen Bass, from Mules of Love, 2002)
How have you put your life back together in the wake of cancer, unexpected loss or trauma? This week, try writing about life falling apart and putting your life back together. What helped? What changed? How did you learn to love your life again?